Symbolic chiefly of strength and confidence, but with a range of other meanings and associations, lion tattoos are among the top choices for animal-themed body art.
In this article, we’re going to explore the significance and meaning of different kinds of the lion tattoo. Don’t forget to check out our gallery of gorgeous lion tattoos and let us know your thoughts and comments below!
Lion tattoo meaning
Despite being wild, fierce, fearsome creatures, lions generally have very positive symbolic meanings across history and different cultures.
Strength and courage
It’s easy to see why we’d come to associate lions with strength. Weighing in at around 150kg (330lbs), able to run at up to high speeds (50 to 80mph, depending on who you ask), with fearsome claws and teeth, these beasts are among the strongest in the animal kingdom.
Lions have nothing to fear from any other predator – they don’t share their territory with anything that could hunt them. Over time, they have therefore become symbols of fearlessness and courage.
This is one of the reasons why lions feature so often in heraldry of notable families, organizations, and countries. They symbolize unyielding strength and unquestionable leadership. Many countries adopted lions as their national animals to highlight their strength and power.
There’s also a connection between lions and nobility – partly because of this prevalence of these animals in coats of arms of noble families, and partly because of the common phrase ‘king of the jungle’. (In fact, lions in the wild don’t live in the jungle, but on the plains of Africa… but the saying has stuck, likely because of a historic ignorance of the topography of the continent.)
Lion tattoos can therefore be a reference to power – be it physical strength, inner confidence and courage, or authority and leadership. They can serve as a reminder of the strength we have, or a symbol of the confidence and balance we’re striving towards. Lion tattoos can symbolize being strong, as well as the ambition to become strong.
Protection and safety
Undoubtedly due to the strength and confidence they project, lions symbolize protection. The fact that they live and hunt in groups, with individual animals supporting and defending their lion family, also feeds into this notion.
Ancient Greeks, in particular, associated lions with protection. Lions were believed to be the guardians of the dead, of thrones, shrines, palaces, and doorways. This is one of the reasons why metal door knockers in the shape of lion’s heads are so popular, even until today.
Lions in Ancient Greece were also protectors of the home and the heart – the most personal and most important aspects of a person’s life.
A lion tattoo can therefore be understood as a protective charm of sorts. Tattoos of lion’s head door knockers are a common choice for expressing this particular meaning. They symbolize protection of our personal space and our inner-self.
In Chinese culture, lions feature primarily as mythical creatures (rather than real animals) and are symbolic of safety and luck. Large statues of lions carved out of stone are a common architectural element outside gates and doorways in China. Positioned on either side of an entrance, they are literal gate-keepers, protecting and guarding.
Lion tattoos with the meaning of protection usually feature male lions, distinguished by their large manes. The reason for this is that in the wild, within a pride (group, or family) of lions, it is the role of the males to patrol the territory and to guard and protect the group.
Chinese-themed lion tattoos, in reference to the stone guardian lions, take on the distinctive appearance of the statues. Traditionally, this should be a pair of lions – with a lioness on the right and a male lion on the left, together symbolizing balance (and the concept of yin and yang) as well as protection.
Family and loyalty
In their natural habitat, lions are the most social animals among the big cats. They live in groups of 10 to 15, known as prides. A pride is usually comprised mostly of family members – females with cubs (the young) and a few adult males.
The groups work in unison to maintain their territory and well-being. The females look after the young and do the majority of the hunting (even up to 90%), while the males protect the pride from other lions. When lionesses hunt, they do so for the whole pride, not for themselves – they share their prey with the whole family.
For this reason, lions are symbolic of family and loyalty to others. Lion tattoos can mean the importance of family, the value of being true and loyal to those close to us, and the significance of protecting our loved ones. Of course, ‘family’ doesn’t have to be understood in a literal sense here – it can refer to any group of people we love and care about, with or without familial ties.
Due perhaps to their silent confidence and their high-ranking position in the animal kingdom, lions are sometimes associated with wisdom.
Native Americans, in particular, believed lions to be symbolic of wisdom, nobility, and confidence. A Native American, or Indian lion tattoo, means the value of wisdom and confidence in your truths and beliefs.
A common way to combine Native American symbolism with a lion in a tattoo design is to depict a lion’s head with a traditional Native American headdress of feathers, traditionally worn by clan chiefs and warriors. This tattoo design means both wisdom and strength – as the headdress was worn only by the strongest, most powerful members of a tribe.
Female lion tattoo meaning
A female lion tattoo, in general, has a lot of the same meanings as a male lion. It can be an equally powerful symbol of strength, protection, and loyalty. Male lions are the more common choice largely because of their unique appearance – among all the big cat species, only male lions have the distinctive mane.
As a symbol, however, the female lion has a series of further meanings which are not necessarily represented by the male lion. The lioness tattoo meaning revolves around notions of feminine strength and courage, as well as motherhood.
The lioness in a tattoo is a powerful symbol of female independence, wisdom, and being both a loyal member of a group and self-sufficient at the same time.
Lion tattoo designs
Lions make for excellent subjects for just about any tattoo style and design, and can be combined with various other elements to enrich the meaning and significance of the piece.
Realistic lion tattoo
3D lion tattoos are intended to be photo-realistic renditions of the animal. Careful shading, either in color or black ink only, is used to create an illusion of realism and depth.
Realistic lion tattoos will be quite large by necessity, so don’t plan on designating only a small space, like the wrist or the ankle, for one of these. The tattoo artist will need a reasonable amount of surface area to accurately render the details necessary for achieving the realistic illusion.
When going for a 3D lion tattoo, it’s particularly important to choose the right tattoo artist. With this style, even slight inaccuracies can lead to the image becoming distorted and losing its primary quality – realism. Pick a professional artist who has demonstrable experience in this style of design to ensure you’re happy with the final result.
Geometric lion tattoo
Geometric tattoos have risen in popularity over the past few years. Loosely based on the idea of sacred geometry, these are designs composed mostly of thin lines and dots, arranged in a perfectly symmetrical pattern and forming geometric figures. The figures combine to create an overall image of the subject, in this case the lion.
The resulting tattoo will be elegant and minimalistic, without sacrificing any of the meaning behind the lion as a symbol.
Dotwork lion tattoo
Also a fairly recent trend, dotwork tattoos are images comprised of a series of small black dots. The technique is based on the pointillism art style, though in the case of tattoos, color is usually not applied. The dots are all black, placed in higher concentration in darker areas of the image in order to create the illusion of shading and depth.
As with 3D tattoos, these will require a fair amount of space to render well and to avoid the dots running into each other too much.
Watercolor lion tattoo
The watercolor style, as the name suggests, is inspired by the look of watercolor paintings. Brightly colored ink is spread in a way that mimics the appearance of watered-down paint.
The watercolor-style splashes of color are often combined with a solid black outline or used as background. As you might expect, this style produces an eye-catching, vibrant tattoo. An abstract element is involved in the case of watercolor lion tattoos, since colors that don’t feature in a lion’s actual appearance are used to make the tattoo livelier.
Lion and flowers tattoo
Flowers are a common addition to many tattoo subjects. They can underline or expand the meaning of the lion, depending on the specific flowers that you choose.
Certain flowers have well-known meanings attached to them. For instance, white roses are known as symbols of purity, red roses – love, daisies symbolize innocence, and lilies are associated with femininity and transience.
Matching lion tattoos
In general, designs chosen for matching tattoos are relatively small and simple, to ensure that they end up looking exactly the same on each person. Rather than going for a large 3D matching lion tattoo, it’s best to consider a small, minimalistic image that will be easily replicated.
Lions as national symbols
Sometimes, a lion tattoo can be a reference to national pride and belonging. The lion is the national animal of several countries, including Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, England, Ethiopia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Singapore.
Astrological lion tattoos
The astrological sign Leo is a representation of the lion. A lion tattoo can be a reference to the person’s Zodiac sign, if they believe astrology to be of importance in their life.
This can be represented in a tattoo design in a direct way – with the Leo Zodiac symbol – or more indirectly, with a lion-themed tattoo.
Leo is associated with fire and the sun – which is interesting, since lions are mostly nocturnal creatures.
Pop culture lion tattoos
Just as lions featured heavily in various mythologies, so their influence extends to the present time through popular culture. Examples of lions in contemporary culture include the Lion King, the wise Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia series of books and films, and the lion symbolizing the courage of Gryffindor house in the Harry Potter series. Lion tattoos can be a reference to these and other fictional characters.
Lion tattoo placements
Lion tattoo designs can be tricky to scale down to the smallest sizes. If you’re thinking of getting a lion tattoo in a small space, such as your neck or wrist, expect the design to involve less detail than large tattoos.
For realistic lion tattoos, in particular, consider larger areas such as your chest, back, ribs, thigh, calf, or stomach. Lions make for great sleeve and half-sleeve designs, too. If your design only includes the lion’s head, you may be able to get away with smaller tattoo sizes.
If you’ve already picked a design for your lion tattoo, any reputable tattoo artist will be able to advise you on the best sizing and placement. It’s important to be reasonable and trust their judgement – if a design with too many intricacies is scaled down too much, it will likely not age very well.
Lion tattoos are as meaningful as they are beautiful. Capable of expressing a range of values and ideas, they make for truly stunning tattoos that are sure to be eye-catching, with lots of potential for originality.
The gallery below will provide you with lots of ideas and inspiration for your very own lion tattoo. Let us know which ones you like best in the comments!